My family recently visited a state park for some hiking. I know that we are quite privileged to be able to do it, but visiting nature is really restorative right now.
At the end of the day, we sat near a firepit and roasted vegan marshmallows.
After a few minutes, a woman and her partner asked if they could join us. They sat on the other side of the fire, and we got to talking.
The woman used to work in special education, but now she teaches geography and world religions. She loves her work, because she helps students in her small Midwestern town realize how much possibility there is in our world.
Her partner works for the Department of Corrections as a hostage negotiator.
“In training, you feel like you’re doing the same things over and over. Like, hasn’t there been enough of this already? But then, when you have to use it, you hardly have to think about it, you know just what to do. All that repetition really pays off.”
A few months earlier, several of the guys in our jail poetry class were talking about the drills they’ve been in.
“It was the scariest thing of my entire life. I knew it was just a drill, too. It was fucking terrifying. All these SWAT guys running in, screaming, they’ve got paintball guns, Get on the ground!, yelling, If you fucking move your ass is grass!”
“You’re lying there, face on the ground, can’t move, they might ziptie your hands behind your back, you can’t move for hours. I mean, I was lying there, just watching this puddle of piss spreading from the guy next to me. I fucking hated that guy right then. But he tried to hold it, I know he did. They had us lying there so long.”
“You tell a guard, I have to piss, he’s going to say, too fucking bad.”
“You’re lying there smelling shit, because you know some guy shit himself.”
“You’re smelling shit like right away. They come in yelling like that, some guys shit themselves from fear.”
“I know! I’m that guy. I was so fucking scared.”
“Your on the ground, lying on your stomach on the ground, I mean, the ground is gross, right? You’re lying there with your face on the floor and your neck hurts and you want to like turn your neck, but you got this guy yelling, You so much as fucking move, your ass is grass. Like, it’s pathetic, but it hurts.”
“Walked through this indoor rec later, paintball splatters all over the place. Like, fuck, what happened in here? Some guy in there, they must’ve lit him up.”
“I been through some rough shit in prison, but this one time, it was a piss-ant county jail, I was in the drill there. That was the worst. Like, there were only fifty guys in that place, what’s the big deal? But they came in there, boom, they fucking pepper sprayed us. For a drill.”
“I’ve watched guys die. But that shit, that’s the most scared I’ve ever been.”
I asked one of the guys, Jason, if he’d write about it.
“That’s something people should read,” I told him.
He shook his head.
“I’m trying to write, like, uplifting stuff. Help guys get on a better track, do better than what I done. This stuff … I don’t know. I don’t even really like talking about it. I don’t want to think about it enough to write it down.”
Header image: cropped photograph of a Val Verde county (Texas) drill from the Laughlin Airforce Base. Most of the time, cameras aren’t allowed inside jails or prisons.
If you’re worried that you don’t feel enough stress and anxiety, there’s an easy chemical fix for that. Habitual methamphetamine use will instill intense paranoia.
In our poetry classes in jail, I’ve talked with a lot of guys who stayed up for days watching UFO shows on TV. A few were also stockpiling military grade weaponry. One man used strings and pulleys to link his shotgun’s trigger to a doorknob, ensuring that anyone who tried to enter the house would be rudely greeted.
They’ve dismantled dozens of computers and phones: sometimes out of suspicion, sometimes because there are valuable components. Although they were rarely organized enough to hawk the proceeds of their dissections.
Suffice it to say that, deprived of sleep and dosed with powerful stimulants, their brains became tumultuous places.
Which is why we spend so much time
talking about conspiracy theories.
I’ve written several previous essays about conspiracy theories – that the Santa myth teaches people to doubt expertise (children learn that a cabal of adults really was conspiring to delude them); that oil company executives have been conspiring to destroy the world; that, for all the ways Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow probes at the undercurrents of truth beneath government conspiracy, the text blithely incorporates metaphors from a Disney-promulgated nature conspiracy.
But, with the fiftieth anniversary
coming up, the men in my class have been talking more about whether the moon
landing was faked.
There’s only so much I can say. After all, I, personally, have never been to
One of my colleagues from Stanford recently conducted molecular biology experiments on the International Space Station, but that’s only zero point one percent of the way to the moon … and she and I were never close enough for me to feel absolutely certain that she wouldn’t lie to me.
Visiting the moon does seem much easier than faking it, though. Our government has tried to keep a lot of secrets, over the years. Eventually, they were leaked.
But that line of reasoning is never going to sway somebody. The big leak might be coming soon.
Instead, the strategy that’s worked for
me is to get people worried about another layer of conspiracy.
“Let’s just say, hypothetically,” I say, “that we did send people to the moon. Why would somebody want to convince you, now, that we didn’t?”
When NASA’s project was announced, a lot of people were upset. Civil rights activist Whitney Young said, “It will cost $35 billion to put two men on the moon. It would take $10 billion to lift every poor person in this country above the official poverty standard this year. Something is wrong somewhere.” (I learned about this and the following quote from Jill Lepore’s excellent review of several new books about the moon landing.)
During John F. Kennedy’s presidential
campaign, he argued that we needed to do it anyway. Despite the challenge, despite the
costs. “We set sail on this new sea
because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they
must be won and used for the progress of all people.”
We did reach the moon. But, did we use that knowledge to benefit the rights and progress of all people? Not so much.
A lot of the guys in jail went to crummy schools. They grew up surrounded by violence and trauma. They didn’t eat enough as kids. They’ve never had good medical care. They’ve struggled to gain traction in their dealings with government bureaucracies … we’ve spent years underfunding post offices, schools, the IRS, the DMV, and, surprise, surprise!, find that it’s arduous interacting with these skeletal agencies.
To keep these men complacent, the people in power would rather have them believe that we didn’t visit the moon. “Eh, our government has never accomplished much, we faked that shit to hoodwink the Russians, no wonder this is a horrible place to live.”
The fact that people in power are maliciously undermining our country’s basic infrastructure would seem way worse if you realized that, 50 years ago, with comically slapdash technologies and computers more rudimentary than we now put into children’s toys, this same government sent people to the moon.
Ronald Reagan said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” And he was in a position to make his words true – he was the government, so all he had to do was be incompetent. And then people would hate the government even more, and become even more distrustful of anyone who claimed that good governance could improve the world.
Needless to say, 45 has taken strategic incompetence to a whole new stratosphere. Beyond the stories of corruption that pepper the news, there’s also the fact that many appointments were never made; there are agencies that, as of July 2019, stilldon’t have anybody running them. These agencies will perform worse.
If people knew how good our government used to be, they might revolt. Better they believe the moon landing was a sham, that the faked photographs are as good as anybody ever got.
At track practice, a pair of high
school runners were arguing. Knowing
that I’ve completed twenty-two years of schooling, they figured I could resolve
“Coach Brown, who would win in a fight, Superman or The Hulk?”
I stared at them blankly. I knew a bit about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which helps to understand The Hulk, but I’d never read a Superman comic. Superman didn’t sound like an interesting hero: he seemed too powerful. Even The Hulk is more interesting within the context of a complex campaign, when he might become enraged and wreck his own plans, than in a single fight.
I failed to provide an answer, and the
kids went back to arguing. (“Superman
could just turn back time to before The Hulk got enraged, then smash
And I resolved to read a Superman book,
to shore up this gap in my education.
Astounding, isn’t it, that Stanford would allow me to graduate without
knowing anything about the paragon of the DC universe?
I chose Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman. And was pleasantly surprised – although Superman is indeed too powerful for the risk of danger to provide narrative tension, he’s still sad. He doesn’t get the recognition that he feels he’s due; his powers leave him feeling isolated and alone; during the 24-hours when his girlfriend becomes his equal due to a magic serum, she spends her time flirting with other heroes.
Doing great work can feel hollow if nobody appreciates it.
Midway through the series, Superman meets two other survivors from his native Krypton. He expects that they’ll congratulate him on how well he’s kept his adopted planet safe. Instead, they’re disgusted by his complacency.
Superman, in turn, feels disappointed by his brethren. Within the world of comic books, characters who view their powers as conferring a responsibility are heroes; those who think that power gives them the right to do whatever they want are villains.
Homo sapiens are not as intelligent as the new arrivals from Krypton. We are smaller, slower, and weaker. Our tools are less technologically advanced. If they chose to cull our kind, we could do nothing to resist.
This particular colony of macaques has been studied closely for years. Researchers have voluminous observational data from both before and after the hurricane; they’ve stored many tissue samples as well. The hope is that this dataset could unveil the biochemical consequences of trauma, and elucidate traits that allow some people to weather trauma more effectively than others.
With clear insights into the specific pathways affected by trauma, we might even be able to develop drugs that would allow humans to stave off PTSD. Or cure it.
Macaques have long been used as subjects for medical research. We’ve developed several vaccines that prevent AIDS in macaques, but unfortunately the differences between SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) and HIV meant that some of these vaccines increased human susceptibility to the disease. Whoops.
Macaques are highly intelligent, social animals with approximately 93% the same DNA sequences as us humans. For immunology research, they’re kept in wire cages. They can’t touch, don’t really get to move around. But that’s not so bad compared to the nightmarish psychological studies that have been conducted on macaques in the past. Dittrich’s article summarizes a few of Dr. Harry Harlow’s experiments. Harlow named several pieces of his research equipment, such as “The Pit of Despair,” a small box devoid of light or sound in which children could be trapped for months on end, or “The Rape Rack,” which shouldn’t be described.
“[Harlow] found that the females who
had endured the trauma of both the Pit of Despair and the Rape Rack tended to
become neglectful or even severely abusive mothers.”
We’ve conducted studies on humans who have been traumatized. By surveying hurricane survivors, we’ve found that many suffer from PTSD. But one drawback of these investigations, Dittrich writes, is that “the humans in these studies … almost never become experimental subjects until after the traumatic events in question, which makes it hard to gauge how the events actually changed them.”
“If a researcher interested in how
trauma affects individuals or societies were to dream up an ideal natural
laboratory, she might imagine a discrete landmass populated by a
multigenerational community that has been extensively and meticulously studied
for many decades before the traumatizing event.
Even better, it would be a population to which researchers would have
unfettered access – not only to their minds, but also to their bodies, and even
We are to macaques as Superman is to
us. We are stronger, smarter,
technologically superior. We can fly
into space; macaques have done so only at our whims.
In “St. Francis Visits the Research
Macaques of Modern Science” by John-Michael Bloomquist, we eavesdrop on a
conversation between the saint and Miss Able, the first primate to leave our
planet. St. Francis asks about her
experience of the voyage; she tells him “The Gods did not let me see
anything, the damn cone didn’t have a window.”
We are indeed like gods among macaques, but we have not elected to be heroes. Instead, we’ve ravaged their ancestral lands. We’ve wracked their children with twisted nightmares that they could not wake from.
Even the Puerto Rican macaque colony that Dittrich writes about – some individuals are permitted to live out their days in relative peace, but this is a breeding center. If you’re developing an HIV vaccine, your lab’s macaques will die; for a few thousand dollars each, this colony will furnish replacements. According to their website, they maintain “an available pool of rhesus macaques in optimal condition for research.”
We humans are like gods, but, unlike Superman, we’ve chosen to be villains.
discuss poetry with people in jail, we often get sidetracked into conversations
about outer space, pharmacology, neuroscience … as it happens, the latter is
particularly relevant to any discussion of storytelling. Because your consciousness has evolved to
choose to do something, like picking up a pen, the first thing that happens is
that, unconsciously, your brain will send signals toward your muscles. You will begin to act. Then, once you are already in motion, your
consciousness will be informed of your decision. Thats when your brain generates a story to
explain why you chose to pick up the pen.
A human consciousness will typically create a story explaining why we chose to do something even if it wasn’t really our choice. If a researcher sways someone’s action through the use of transcranial magnetic or direct current stimulation, most people will still offer up a coherent explanation explaining why they chose to act that way.
Personally, I think this sort of research into free will and mind control is fascinating. I could continue rattling off more facts. By reading this essay, you might learn something. But it probably wouldn’t change how you act. Knowledge doesn’t spur behavior, emotions do.
Portuguese-American neuroscientist Antonio Damasio reported on a patient,
Elliot, with ventromedial frontal lobe damage.
While Elliott was articulate and intellectually sound, witty even, he
had become emotionally flat, showing no hint of affect in many hours of
was never sad, impatient, angry, or frustrated.
This lack of emotion seemed to paralyze his decision making. It might take him all afternoon to make up
his mind about where and what to eat, or half an hour to decide on an
appointment or the color of his pen.
and his team tested Elliott in all sorts of ways. Even though his reasoning capacities seemed
perfectly fine, he had trouble sticking with a task and especially reaching a
conclusion. As Damasio summarized: “The
defect appeared to set in at the late stages of reasoning, close to or at the
point at which choice making or response selection must occur.”
himself, after a session in which he had carefully reviewed all options, said
“And after all this, I still wouldn’t know what to do!”
all, there is no way to prove, mathematically, how to be good. Your intellect will invariably fall
short. Only by trusting your emotions
can you decide that one course of action is better than another.
is the value of stories.
who devotes much of his time to teaching young people, says that you could
provide them with huge quantities of information – about mass incarceration in
the U.S., or how we mistreat undocumented workers, or Muslim Americans after 9
/ 11 – and it wouldn’t change anything.
“But,” Eggers said, “if you give them even a 15-page
first-person narrative, they become activists.”
By way of example, my co-panelists discussed several local stories that could be presented in a variety of ways. For instance, the kid who recently died in our local jail because the jailors stopped providing his medication after his eighteenth birthday. I’ve written about his ordeal previously; Max Smith had become close friends with him while they were confined in a small cell together; Lindsey Badger met with his mother after he died to preserve stories about his life that depict him more accurately than the terse denunciation he received from our local newspaper.
Brekke added that, although she hadn’t read the article about this young man,
she knows that when she was sentenced, “If you were to look me up online, on
a database or whatever, you would see that I’m a drug addict, you would see
that I’m an intravenous drug user, you would see that I’m a drug dealer, but
today, and even then, that’s not who I
am. I’m actually a very kind, loving,
caring person, who has had a really crappy way of life shoved onto me, so
that’s the way of life I chose to take. I’m
an overcomer, and I’ve been able to overcome that.”
I was on the inside when I got arrested because I’m sure that the things that
were said on social media, there couldn’t have been anything good.”
her time in prison, Brekke began to write, which allowed her to tell the whole
truth. She refused to let other people
dictate the narrative of her life. “To
be able to tell your story, or to hear somebody else’s story, you get the
beginning, the middle, and the now.”
The last prompt from the audience was, “I’m curious about each of the panelists’ perspectives on how writers can hurt readers in a way that’s inspiring for people to act.”
Smith and Brekke answered for the panel (perhaps you could argue that Eggers has already provided an answer in his books – by intermixing levity with pain you can create stories that are sufficiently fun that they’ll reach an audience, but still convey a spark of indignation that compels people to work to change the world. After two hundred pages of comic antics in The Parade, Eggers concludes with an incandescent flash of horror).
said, “Unfortunately for many of the people who are incarcerated, just being
true to their experience hurts readers.
It’s a horrible, horrible experience that is hard to imagine if you
haven’t been exposed to it.”
Brekke added, “I would want a reader to feel my own hurt, through the
writing. To not feel sorry for me, but
to be able to feel the truth and the pain that I once felt.”
The written word does not accomplish much if a tale is too unpalatable to reach its audience, but when the sorrows come from a place a deep integrity, or when the hurt is leavened with a touch of humor, readers might trust an author enough to continue.
And I am grateful that so many deeply committed people are willing to share hard stories in a way we can appreciate. Because we’ll need the emotional wallop of powerful stories to compel us to change the world.
Featured image: Max ribbing me. From a recording of the panel created by Jeremy Hogan.
scientist first discovers a function for a gene, that scientist gets to name
it. Sometimes these names seem
reasonable enough: I worked with a hematologist who did a study to identify
proteins involved in apoptosis, which means roughly “programmed cell death” or
“cellular suicide,” and so each gene wound up named “Requiem 3”, “Requiem 4,”
fly geneticists tend to give their discoveries more creative names than other
scientists. There’s the gene “cheap
date” – if a fruit fly is missing that gene, it will – ha ha – be unable
to process ethanol and so quickly passes
out. Another genetic mutation produced
male flies that would court either males or females, and so this was known for
over a decade as “fruity,” until another scientist decided that universal
courtship could be less offensively described by the term “fruitless,”
because clearly any mating-like activity that does not lead to progeny is a waste of time.
Yup, some gene names were bad. One person’s idea of a joke might seem to somebody else like a mean-spirited reference to the wider world’s power dynamics.
gene names were bad not out of malice, but because humor at the expense of a
fruit fly doesn’t make as many people laugh when a human child is dying.
A gene that produces a somewhat spiky-shaped protein was named after Sonic Hedgehog. It seemed funny at the time! See? The protein is spiky, the video game character has spiky hair, and … get it? You get it, right?
Sonic Hedgehog protein establishes a concentration gradient that allows cells
to recognize their spatial position in a developing body. If a human fetus comes to term despite having
a mutation in the Sonic Hedgehog gene (genetic abnormalities will often result
in a miscarriage, but not always), the resulting child will have severe brain
a doctor has to explain, “Your baby is suffering because of a Sonic Hedgehog
And so, in 2006, geneticists capitulated to medical doctors. No more fanciful names for genes that might lie at the root of human health problems … which, because humans and fruit flies are actually pretty similar, means most genes. Patients would now be told about a mutation in the SHH gene instead of Sonic Hedgehog, or a mutation in the LFNG gene instead of Lunatic Fringe.
Words have power, after all.
people are more attentive to their environments than others. During evolutionary time, this trait was
obviously good for humanity. If your
tribe is traveling through a hostile environment, it helps to have somebody
around who is paying attention to the world.
A friend who’s primed to notice encroaching threats like a hungry lion
about to leap out and attack. Maybe
we should take a different path.
Which, yeah, that sounds like a good idea.
people are particularly inattentive to their surroundings, so it’s easy
for them to ignore the world and focus instead on one single problem. During evolutionary time, this trait was
surely good for humanity, too. It’s helpful
to have somebody on the lookout for threats that might eat you, obviously. But it’s also helpful to have somebody who
might discover a way of using dried grass to weave baskets. A way of cooking mud into pottery that could
carry or store water.
Neurodiversity is a virtue in and of itself. Over the millennia, the world has offered our species many challenges. Populations that were sufficiently diverse that some members were good at each of a variety of tasks were most likely to flourish. A cooperative species like termites or Homo sapiens benefits from specialization among its members.
our their own devices, people would naturally fall asleep and wake up at
different times. Some brains are primed
to work best in the early morning; others work best late at night. And that’s good. It reduces the amount of time that a tribe
would be susceptible to attack, everyone asleep.
the modern world, we occasionally forget to feel grateful for the diversity
that allowed our species to thrive. The
high school students whose brains are primed for late-night thinking drag
themselves through morning classes like zombies. They’ll be midway through first period before
the sun rises. Their teachers glance
derisively at their slumped and scruffy forms and call them lazy.
humans invented language. Much later, we
invented writing. Much, much later, we
invented the printing press, and then written words became so widely accessible
that most humans could benefit from learning how to read.
course, reading is easier for people who are inattentive to their environment.
If I had been born earlier in human evolution, I totally would have been lion bait. When I’m reading a book, or am deep in thought, the rest of the world melts away. When I’m typing at home, K or the kids sometimes shout my name several times before I even realize that I’m being spoken to.
Luckily for me, I wasn’t born way back then. Instead I was born into a world where inattentive people – the people best able to block out the world and instead focus on their own thoughts – are the most likely to find academic success. People like me become medical doctors. Then we get to name the world’s various conditions and maladies.
when it came time to categorize the sort of person who is especially attentive
to the world, people like me (who obviously thought that our way of
being is the best way to be) referred to those others as having an attention deficit
those people’s awareness of their environs might sound like a virtue; instead,
we castigated those people’s difficulty at ignoring the world.
never read the Percy Jackson books, but I’m glad that they exist, if only for
passages like this (from The Lightning Thief):
ADHD – you’re impulsive, can’t sit still in the classroom. That’s your battlefield reflexes. In a real fight, they’d keep you alive. As for the attention problems, that’s because
you see too much, Percy, not too little.”
trauma can cause symptoms that medical doctors term “attention deficit
disorder.” Which makes sense – if you’ve
gone through an experience where your environs were threatening, you should
learn to be more aware of your environment.
It should become more difficult to ignore a world that has proven
itself to be dangerous.
somebody with my type of brain, it’s going to be easier to sit outside
and read a book when there’s a squirrel nearby than if there’s a prowling
grizzly fifteen meters away.
children have to learn early on that daddy’s sometimes a grizzly. And if it can happen to him, why not other
grown-ups, too? Best to stay on high
alert around the teacher. She’s trying
to get you absorbed in these number tables … but what if that’s a trap?
Certain drugs can narrow a person’s perception of the world. They act like blinders, chemicals like nicotine, ritalin, and amphetamines, both un-methylated (sold under the trade name Adderall) and methylated (a CH3 group attached to the amine moiety of Adderall will slow its degradation by CYP2D6 enzymes in the liver, increasing the duration of its effects).
Note to non-chemists: the methylated analogue of Adderall goes by several names, including “ice,” “shard,” and “crystal meth.” Perhaps you’ve heard of it — this compound played a key role in the television show Breaking Bad. And it’s very similar to the stuff prescribed to eight year olds. Feel free to glance at the chemical structures, below.
poetry class last week, a man who has cycled in and out of jail several times
during the few years I’ve taught there – who I’d said “hello” to on the outside
just a few weeks earlier when he rode his bicycle past the high school runners
and me – plonked himself down in the squeaky plastic hair next to mine.
I know,” he said. “But I might be out on
a urine screen. But I was doing
good. Out for six months, and they were
screening me like all the time, I only failed three of them.”
he said, nodding. “But I wasn’t hitting
it bad, this time. I know I look like I
lost some weight, dropped from 230 down to 205, but that’s just cause it was
hard getting enough to eat. Wasn’t like
last time. I don’t know if you remember,
like, just how gaunt my whole face looked when they brought me in. But, man, it’s just … as soon as I step
outside this place, my anxiety shoots through the roof … “
apparently a common phenomenon. When we
incarcerate people, we carve away so much of their experience of the
world. Inside the jail, there is a set
routine. Somebody is often barking
orders, telling people exactly what to do.
There aren’t even many colors to be distracted by, just the
white-painted concrete walls, the faded orange of inmate scrubs, the dull tan
CO shirts and dark brown pants.
world in there is bleak, which means there are very few choices to make. Will you sit and try to listen to the
TV? (The screen is visible from three or
four of the twelve cells, but not from the others.) Try, against all odds, to read a book? Or add your shouting voice to the din, trying
to have a conversation (there’s no weather, so instead the fall-back topic is
speculating what’s going to be served for dinner)?
spending time locked up, a person’s ability to navigate the wider world
atrophies, the same as your leg would if you spent months with it bundled up in
these are people whom we should be helping to learn how to navigate the world better.
“ … so I
vape a lot, outside. I step out of this
place, that’s the first thing I do, suck down a cigarette. And, every now and then … “
physically pained, being so attentive to his surroundings. And so he doses himself with chemicals that
let him ignore the world as well as I can.
yes. He grew up with an abusive
stepfather. This led to his acting
squirrelly in school. And so, at ten
years old, medical doctors began dosing him with powerful stimulants.
Meanwhile, our man dutifully internalized the thought that he had a personal failing. The doctors referred to his hyper-vigilance as an attention deficit disorder.
know now, after all the hurt we’ve piled on him, but think: where might our man
be if he’d learned to think of his attentiveness as a virtue?
This post briefly touches on sexual assault and child abuse.
Many of the men in jail have struggled with interpersonal relationships.
After reading Bruce Weigl’s “The Impossible,” a poem about being sexually assaulted as a child, somebody stayed after class to ask if there were resources to help somebody recover from that sort of experience. The next week, he brought a two-page account of his own abuse.
After reading Ai’s “Child Beater,” many men proffered their own horror stories. Sometimes they offered excuses for their parents: “My mom, she had me when she was thirteen, I guess what you’d call it now would be ‘statutory rape.’ So she didn’t know what to do with us. But there were plenty of times, I’d be mouthing off, she’d tie my arms to rafters in the basement with an extension cord, and … “
Seriously, you don’t need to hear the rest of that story. Nor the conversation (we’ve read “Child Beater” about once a year) when the men discussed which objects they’d been hit with. They appraised concussions and trauma with the nuance of oenophiles.
Consider this gorgeous poem by Mouse:
We had this cat
Small gray and frantic
Always knocking over my mother’s lamps
Me and my sister can’t sit on my mother’s furniture
But that cat can
My mother would whoop my ass for her lamps
Knocked over and broken
One day my mom bought me a dollar sign belt
Made of leather and metal
I put that belt to use every time I
Got my own ass whooped
We humans evolved to hunt. By nature, we are a rather violent species. But these cycles – people’s crummy childhoods; institutional violence during schooling and incarceration – amplify aggression. Our world “nurtures” many into malice.
If you ask people in jail why they’re in, almost everybody will say that they were busted for drugs or alcohol. But if you look at bookings, or hear from somebody what sort of case he’s fighting, about half the time it’s domestic violence.
So we’ve been reading poems from Donika Kelly’s Bestiary, a charming volume that uses abundant animal imagery to elucidate human relationships. The men need a safe space to discuss love and romance. Obviously, a dingy classroom inside a jail is not the ideal place, but this is what we’ve got.
Kelly’s “Bower” opens with:
Consider the bowerbird and his obsession
of blue, …
… then catalogs some of the strange objects that a male bowerbird might use to construct his pleasure dome. They are artists, meticulously arraying flowers, berries, beetles, even colorful bits of plastic, striving to create an arch sufficiently beautiful that a visiting female will feel inclined to mate.
Among tropical birds with female mate choice, most males will remain celibate. They try to woo each visitor, but fail. Usually one single male – he of the most impressive aerial gymnastics (among manakins) or he of the most impressive bower – will be chosen by every female in an area. Because the males don’t actually raise their young (their contribution ends after the ten or twenty seconds needed to copulate), any given male will have more than enough time for everyone who wants him.
Every male bowerbird devotes his life to the craft, but most of their creations will be deemed insufficiently beautiful.
how the female finds him,
lacking. All that blue for nothing.
I love the irony of this ending. This bird’s bower has failed. The bits of blue that he collected were not sufficient to rouse anyone’s interest in him as a mate.
But life will generally seem pointless if we focus only on goals. Most bowerbirds won’t mate; Sisyphus will never get that boulder up; you and I will die. This poem is heartbreaking unless we imagine that the bowerbird takes some pleasure in the very act of creation.
(The natural world is not known for its kindness, but in this case it probably is – because every male bowerbird feels compelled to build these structures, it’s likely that their artistic endeavors feed their brains with dopamine.)
Indeed, most poems that we humans write will go unread. Even for published poets, it’s probably rare that their words woo a future mate. But even if Kelly’s own creation did not bring her love (and, based on what little I know about the publishing industry, it almost certainly did not bring her great fortune), it’s clear that all that effort was not for naught.
She made something beautiful. Sometimes, that alone has to be enough.
At another class, we read Kelly’s “What Gay Porn Has Done for Me.”
Thanks to the internet, many people learn about sexuality from pornography. One flaw with this “education” is that even when the female actors mime pleasure, they do so while gazing outward.
Call it comfort, or truth, how they look,
not at the camera, as women do,
but at one another.
In generic heterosexual pornography, there is a distance. There is no “relationship” shown between the actors – they’re not even looking at one another. Instead, the female actor is expected to gaze at a camera, and the (likely male) consumer is gazing at a computer or telephone screen to make some simulacrum of eye contact.
Each body is a body on display,
and one I am meant to see and desire.
Generic heterosexual pornography seems to objectify the actors much more than gay pornography because the focus is on a performer’s body more than the romantic acts depicted. Because so much of this pornography is consumed by a homophobic audience, male bodies are depicted minimally – usually only a single organ within the frame – which prevents couples from being shown.
The pleasure offered isn’t quite voyeurism, pretending to watch another pair make love. It’s fantasy, the chance to imagine being the bearer of the male genitalia. But this fantasy, independent a fantasy of conversation and mutual seduction, makes others’ bodies seem a thing to be used, not a carriage for the partner’s personality.
… I am learning
what to do with my face,
and I come on anything I like.
To desire, and to be desired, need not be degrading for anyone involved. This is a hard lesson to square with the sort of “sex education” that I received in school, which was sufficiently Christian that sex was presented as both desirable and bad. If a person thinks that he or she is wicked for wanting, it’ll be hard to discuss what each person wants.
There’s no way to pretend “I’m a good person who just got carried away!” if you make a sober, premeditated, consensual decision to do something bad.
Of course, sexuality isn’t bad. But many people still posture as thought it is. When these people feel (totally natural!) desire, they’re forced to create dangerous situations that might excuse their subsequent behavior.
I’m reasonably well-versed with small stuff. I’ve studied quantum mechanics, spent two years researching electronic structure, that sort of thing. I imagine that I’m about as comfortable as I’ll ever be with the incomprehensible probabilistic weirdness that underlies reality.
But although I helped teach introductory calculus-based physics, I’ve never learned about big things. I took no geometry in college, and most big physics, I assume, is about transferring equations into spaces that aren’t flat. The basic principle seems straightforward – you substitute variables, like if you’re trying to estimate prices in another country and keep plugging in the exchange rate – but I’ve never sat down and worked through the equations myself.
Still, some excellent pop-science books on gravity have been published recently. My favorite of these was On Gravity by A. Zee – it’s quite short, and has everything I assume you’d want from a book like this: bad humor, lucid prose, excellent pacing. Zee has clearly had a lot of practice teaching this material to beginners, and his expertise shines through.
Near the end of the book, Zee introduces black holes – gravity at its weirdest. Gravity becomes stronger as the distance between objects decreases – it follows an “inverse square law.”
If our moon was closer to Earth, the tides would be more extreme. To give yourself a sense of the behavior of inverse square laws, you can play with some magnets. When two magnets are far apart, it seems as though neither cares about the existence of the other, but slide them together and suddenly the force gets so strong that they’ll leap through the air to clank together.
But because each magnet takes up space, there’s a limit to how close they can get. Once you hear them clank, the attractive magnetic force is being opposed by a repulsive electrostatic force – this same repulsion gives us the illusion that our world is composed of solid objects and keeps you from falling through your chair.
Gravity is much weaker than magnetism, though. A bar magnet can have a strong magnetic field but will have an imperceptible amount of gravity. It’s too small.
A big object like our sun is different. Gravity pulls everything together toward the center. At the same time, a constant flurry of nuclear explosions pushes everything apart. These forces are balanced, so our sun has a constant size, pouring life-enabling radiation into the great void of space (of which our planet intercepts a teensy tiny bit).
But if a big object had much more mass than our sun, it might tug itself together so ardently that not even nuclear explosions could counterbalance its collapse. It would become … well, nobody knows. The ultra-dense soup of mass at the center of a black hole might be stranger than we’ve guessed. All we know for certain is that there is a boundary line inside of which the force of gravity becomes so strong that not even light could possibly escape.
Satellites work because they fall toward Earth with the same curvature as the ground below – if they were going faster, they’d spiral outward and away, and if they were going slower, they’d spiral inward and crash. The “event horizon” of a black hole is where gravity becomes so strong that even light will be tugged so hard that it’ll spiral inward. So there’s almost certainly nothing there, right at the “edge” of the black hole as we perceive it. Just the point of no return.
If your friends encounter a black hole, they’re gone. Not even Morse-code messages could escape.
(Sure, sure, there’s “Hawking radiation,” quantum weirdness that causes a black hole to shrink, but this is caused by new blips in the fabric of reality and so can’t carry information away.)
The plot of Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, revolves around a Romeo & Juliet-esque romance in the middle of intergalactic war, but most of the comic is about parenting. K read the entire series in two days, bawling several times, and then ran from the bedroom frantic to demand the next volume (unfortunately for her, Vaughan & Staples haven’t yet finished the series).
Saga is masterfully well-done, and there are many lovely metaphors for a child’s development.
For instance, the loss of a child’s beloved caretaker – babysitters, daycare workers, and teachers do great quantities of oft under-appreciated work. In Saga, the child and her first babysitter are linked through the spirit, and when the caretaker moves on, the child feels physical pain from the separation.
A hairless beast named “Lying Cat” can understand human language and denounces every untruth spoken in its present – allowing for a lovely corrective to a child’s perception that she is to blame for the traumas inflicted upon her.
Perhaps my favorite metaphor in Saga depicts the risk of falling into a black hole. Like all intergalactic travelers, they have to be careful – in Saga, a black hole is called a “timesuck” and it’s depicted as a developing baby.
My favorite scene in the film Interstellar depicts the nightmarish weirdness of relativistic time. A massive planet seems perfectly habitable, but its huge gravitational field meant that the years’ worth of “Everything’s okay!” signals had all been sent within minutes of a scout’s arrival. The planet was actually so dangerous that the scout couldn’t survive a full day, but decades would have passed on Earth before anyone understood the risk.
Gravity eats time.
So do babies. A child is born and the new parents might disappear from the world. They used to volunteer, socialize, have interests and hobbies … then, nothing.
When I started bouldering, I had the pleasure of attending a gym run by Jess McCauley. He was an excellent climbing coach – although this was a very small gym in Mountain View, California, many of the kids he taught excelled at national competitions.
Then Jess decided to become a school teacher. He was clearly great at working with kids, and had a B.A. in history focusing on African studies, so he figured he could do more good inside a classroom than a gym. As he finished his education degree, Jess began working as a substitute teacher.
His first job was in my spouse’s high school “Biotechnology” class. The day before, she exhorted her students: “The sub tomorrow is a good friend of mine, and I’m gonna be really upset if you’re hard on him.”
Everybody knew Jess was great with kids. He’s a funny, charming, knowledgeable, muscular dude. But every time a substitute teacher steps into a classroom, the chance that something will go wrong increases dramatically.
Teachers build relationships with students over the course of a year. As you work with a group of people, you learn to read subtle social cues – you’ll know when two students need to be separated from each other, when somebody might need to take a momentary breather in the hallway. There’s a lot going on inside a high school beyond content education, and teachers develop an intuitive feel for the social dynamics inside their own rooms.
With experience, most people get better at this. I imagine my spouse’s content knowledge didn’t improve much over her first five years in the classroom, but she became a better teacher. She learned how to read and work a room.
And I know how much effort she puts into establishing a culture of trust inside her room. But there are still problems.
In the morning, she teaches AP biology to her school’s “best and brightest,” kids bound for college at top-tier universities. Many of those students would probably learn fine if you gave them all textbooks and put a straw-filled scarecrow behind the teacher’s desk. Their neurochemistry tends to mesh well with the norms of public education.
In the afternoon, she teaches “Earth and space science” to kids who actually need a good teacher. (Unfortunately, many schools pair their best teachers with the honors students and assign whomever’s left to the kids who need the most.) These are students whom administrators often expect to fail – and yet, when given appropriate challenges (like a recent assignment engineering challenge to build a functional solar still), they shine.
Still, when a substitute steps into these classrooms, there’s a major risk that something will go wrong.
Last year, when our family traveled to St. Louis for the National American Biology Teacher meeting, one of my spouse’s students punched a classmate in the head.
During another of our trips, a student flipped a desk. The year before, some students locked a sub out of the room and looped twine between the door handle and a lab table, tightening their barricade with a bar from the coat closet. Those same kids stole the fire extinguisher that day (which my spouse only knew because they gleefully hugged her and told her so at graduation – nobody expected for these kids to receive diplomas, so they were understandably elated to be there).
When my spouse plans trips, she requests that only experienced substitutes be assigned to cover her classes, but there’s only so much that somebody unfamiliar with the room can do. I imagine that if she were subbing for somebody else, the chance of something going wrong would still jump, even though she can keep her own classrooms orderly. Those are students she’s grown familiar with.
High school is a stressful environment. And putting a new face into that kind of situation can trigger trouble.
But, what’s a little worse than high school? In terms of, like, people don’t want to be there, emotions flare, you’ve got massive numbers of athletic young men crammed into a cramped little space?
Oh. Right. Prison.
One consequence of the federal hiring freeze is that many prisons have been relying on substitute guards. These subs might be trained guards who usually work other blocks – or they might be classroom instructors, medical staff, clerks. Female secretaries dressed in their office clothes (i.e. skirt, button-down blouse) might be suddenly assigned to patrol the halls of a men’s prison.
When a substitute steps into my spouse’s classroom, kids might get hurt. When a substitute enters a prison, people could die. According to a terrifying article from the New York Times,
As the shortage of correctional officers has grown chronic under President Trump – and the practice of drawing upon other workers has become routine – many prisons have been operating in a perpetual state of staffing turmoil, leaving some workers feeling ill-equipped and unsafe on the job, according to interviews and internal documents from the Bureau of Prisons.
Dozens of workers from prisons across the country said inmates had become more brazen with staff members and more violent with one another.
The traditional rules go unenforced, which emboldens people to push the limits further. When guards can’t be relied on to keep a prison orderly, gang violence often takes over as an alternate form of control.
In My Brother Moochie, journalist Issac J. Bailey describes the emotional fallout that accompanied his older brother’s violent crime. After this brother, Moochie, was sent to prison, Bailey’s family crumbled. Several of his younger brothers got involved with petty crime and have been cycling in and out of prison ever since. For instance, Bailey’s younger brother James, who is traumatized by the violence he witnesses in prison:
The man who was killed was “a little Asian dude smaller than me, so about fifteen of them ran into the room and started stabbing him,” James said. “Dude was supposed to go home the next week. What’s crazy is dude is from California and he can’t even speak his family’s original language. They stabbed him out of fear.”
A shortage of prison guards throughout the state’s correctional system meant the few on duty didn’t always manage to make the rounds through the dorms on schedule.
I teach at our local county jail. During a staffing shortage two summers ago, the jail became much less safe. According to former inmate (and excellent human being) Max Smith, “Guys learned to time things. A guard would be walking through for the count, some guys would be wailing on somebody inside a cell, they’d have somebody go up, ask the guard a question, distract him right when he got to that window. Then he’d keep walking and they’d continue beating the shit out of somebody. It was a scary place to be.”
Maybe there’s more that my spouse could be doing to establish a culture that will stay calm even when substitutes come into her classroom. But I know that she’s already trying awfully hard, and she’s one of our country’s best teachers.
I think it’s safe to assume that the average prison guard puts less energy than she does into cultivating a safe and respectful environment. When subs cover for them, bad things are going to happen.
Maybe we as a country don’t want to spend so much money on our prisons. If so, we should probably be spending a whole lot more on education, so that we won’t feel the need to lock people up – public schooling is a chance to turn people’s lives around, but it’s not like we’re pouring money into that. And there’s sentencing reform. With shorter prison sentences, we wouldn’t need so many guards.
But I can’t imagine that the best solution is to conscript secretaries, teachers, and medical staff into patrolling the halls.
Some people approach poems as though they are puzzles. My high school English teachers implied that poems are full of symbols that we must decode. Which simply isn’t true.
In Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” he exhorts his students to enjoy the experience of reading a poem, of feeling each sound leave the mouth and spill outward into the world. His students balk. That’s not how they were taught to read poetry! Instead, Collins writes,
… all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Matthew Zapruder began writing Why Poetry to explain the difference between the idea of symbolism taught in high school – a one-to-one mapping between words on the page and the author’s veiled intent, a parlor trick like the parallels between James Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey – and actual symbolism employed by regular ol’ human poets. In Zapruder’s words:
If what we mean by “symbol” is a word or phrase that has some specific, hidden, secret meaning, then we don’t really find those very often in poetry. The idea that we do is inimical to a true experience of reading it.
When language in poetry becomes resonant, and charged with meaning, it achieves a symbolic status.
Zapruder is saddened that readers think writers would intentionally hide the meaning of their words. Let alone that writers might actually do it.
Clarity for me in poetry is a kind of generosity, a willingness to be together with the reader in the same place of uncertainty, striving for understanding. To give the impression that something important is happening but that the mere reader cannot, without some kind of special, esoteric knowledge, have access to it strikes me as deeply ungenerous, even cruel.
Our poetry classes in the jail have had high turnover recently. New Leaf New Life previously ran a “recovery dorm” inside the jail. The dorm was a miserable little space – an underground concrete room with a shower, a toilet, twelve bunks, and two tables for eating, no exterior windows, just a view of central booking and the elevator – but people chose to live in there, sometimes for years, to have a modicum of autonomy and access to volunteer programming. Things like our poetry class, AA meetings, a weekly game night.
We were able to work with the same group of people for long stretches of time. We could provide a full curriculum and work on revising our own writing. Everyone who wrote for the recent Monster House Press publication was incarcerated in this dorm.
Since this program was canceled (replaced with court-mandated rehab), we’ve been teaching poetry classes only for general population, for people in one of the rowdier cell blocks. One week, our class was totally derailed by a group of roughnecks extolling the gang control they’d imposed on the block. Other weeks people come just to grab a pencil and a few sheets of paper, then promptly ask if the guards can come and take them back. Or, when their block was on lockdown every day for weeks, pushy dudes who didn’t want to read or write would fill the sign-up sheet just for the chance to stretch their legs on the walk down the hallway to our classroom.
Some weeks class falls flat.
I don’t blame them for signing up. I’ve never lived inside a jail, but it sounds like the pits. I’d sign up for programs I didn’t care about, too, just to break up the monotony of days.
Still, some weeks we get lucky and have a room full of (unlucky) dudes who really want to read and write.
Since we’ve been seeing so many new people, we’ve been reading poetry by Bruce Weigl several times each year. Weigl writes powerful narrative poems that deal with trauma and violence. We begin with “The Impossible,” which opens:
Winter’s last rain and a light I don’t recognize
through the trees and I come back in my mind
to the man who made me suck his cock
when I was seven, in sunlight, between boxcars.
I thought I could leave him standing there
in the years, half smile on his lips …
This is a hard poem for guys in jail to read. It’s a hard poem for anybody to read, but in our classes, particularly, whomever is reading it out loud first might stop at the third line.
The opening is perfect, though. As with Proust’s mind flooding when he stumbles over a pair of uneven paving stones, or hears a long-forgotten tone, or smells tea and cake exactly like his aunt used to eat, Weigl’s memories swell unbidden when he glimpses light shining through tree leaves in a particular way. Once, when I was seven, there was just this light … and … and …
He thought he could forget his trauma. Thought he could “leave him standing there / in the years.” He was wrong.
Many people who have survived abuse try to forget and move on. But the memories can fester. After class one week, a man lingered, asking a guard “Can I … can I talk for him a minute …” and, when the guard nodded, said to me, “Like, something happened to me … kinda like that poem we were talking about … do you … do you think there’s a way I could get some help with that?”
In Tom McCarthy’s film Spotlight, a character finally agrees to be interviewed about the priest who raped him. He is asked how he coped. He turns out an arm riddled with needle tracks.
Most men in jail suffered disproportionately before they were locked up. Many began taking drugs in lieu of the psychiatric care they needed but couldn’t afford; now they are addicted. And behind bars. Beneath fluorescent lights for nineteen hours a day. Somehow they are expected to heal there, inside the jail, with even fewer resources before.
“The world needs to know,” we tell them. “Write about that.”
They balk. “I can’t write about this shit.” It cuts too deep, the pain’s too raw … and they feel ashamed. Our society has a tendency to blame victims. In an interview with Blast Furnace, Weigl says that his father “was shocked that it had happened because I didn’t tell him at that time. He said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I said, ‘Because you would’ve beaten my ass for letting it happen,’ and he knows he would have, too. That would’ve been his response, Why did you let someone do this to you?”
But Weigl wrote openly of his trauma, and his words help others come to terms with abuse. It must feel nauseating to re-live certain experiences in order to write them down – but that act of generosity could save someone else. And in “The Impossible,” Weigl teaches us how to write about the things that seem impossible to write about. The poem ends,
Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.
In Jason Shiga’s Demon, the protagonist attempts to commit suicide. Again and again. Death never seems to take – each time, he wakes intact and offs himself again.
Eventually, the character realizes that he is cursed … or, rather, that he is a curse. Whenever his current body dies, his spirit takes possession of the next available shell. Each individual body can be snuffed, but every time that happens, his wants and desires leap into a new home.
We incarcerate drug dealers. But we make little effort to change the world enough to staunch demand. People’s lives are still broken. Impoverished, addicted, they’ll buy. When one dealer is locked up, the job leaps to someone else.
Child molesters receive less sympathy than anyone else in jail or prison. When somebody wants to complain about sentencing, he’ll say “I’m looking at seven years, and that cho-mo got out in two!” When gangs inside want to look tough, they find friendless child molesters and murder them – these murders might go unpunished. Many child molesters spend their time in solitary for their own protection, but solitary confinement is itself a form of torture.
Child molesters were often abused as children. In Joanna Conners’s I Will Find You, she realizes that her rapist was probably re-enacting abuses that he had experienced in prison.
The demon leaps from one shell to the next.
During a university commencement address, J.K. Rowling said that “There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.” Perhaps this is helpful for privileged college graduates to hear, but this attitude ignores how brains work. When we have a thought, the synapses that allowed that thought grow stronger. We become better at doing things that we’ve already done.
Bad parenting makes certain choices come easier than others. And then, each time a bad choice is made, it becomes easier to make again. After a long history of bad choices, it’s difficult to do anything else. But the initial mistakes were made by a child. Then these mistakes perpetuated themselves.
We as a society could have helped that child’s parents more – we did not. We could have helped the child more, perhaps through education, or nutrition, or providing stable work for the parents – we did not. We could have helped the young adult more, perhaps, at this point, through rehabilitative jails – we did not.
After all our failures to intervene, we must accept some responsibility for the ensuing criminality.
If buying in to the illusion of agency helps you get your work done, go for it. I too believe in free will. But we have no idea what it feels like inside someone else’s brain. If born into someone else’s circumstances, with that person’s genetics, prenatal nutrition, and entire lifetime of experiences, would you have steered to a better course?
In ancient Tibetan Buddhist mythology, crimes and addiction are the province of demons. A person has been possessed – the demon is influencing choices.
This perspective does not deny free will to the afflicted. It simply implies – correctly – that some decisions will be easier to make than others. This idea was tested in an experiment asking right-handed people to touch a button near the center of a computer screen. Study subjects were not told which hand to use, and most used their right. After a powerful magnetic pulse, people could still chose either hand to touch the button … but pressing it with the left hand suddenly seemed easier, and so that’s what many people did.
Addiction makes choosing not to use drugs more difficult. Either option is available, but the demon is constantly pushing toward one.
In most mythologies, a demon can be exorcised. In Jason Shiga’s Demon, the protagonist can die permanently only if his body is killed at a time when the nearest available Homo sapiens shell is already possessed.
Existence, for this demon, is a form of torment. A villain was thrilled to find Shiga’s protagonist … not to do him harm, but as a chance to end the cycle.
Some demons might never leave the body. The brain is plastic, but synaptic connections reflect its entire history. Even after years clean, addiction lingers.
In Buddhist mythology, even demons that cannot be exorcised can be distracted. Apparently demons love to guard treasure. It’s a beautiful image – the demon is still inside, but rather than push its host toward calamity, it hides in a corner, sniggering like Gollum, fondling a jewel-encrusted box.
Addicts are shuttered in jail. The walls are concrete. Fluorescent lights shine nineteen hours a day. People weathering opiate withdrawal can’t sleep even during those few hours of dark. The block is noisy, and feels dangerous. The brain is kept in a constant high-stress state of vigilance. Often, the only thoughts that a person has enough concentration to formulate are the easy ones.
Thoughts of drugs.
But poems can be treasures. If given solace long enough to read a poem, our afflicted might find beauty there. Something for the demon to guard.
We are not helping people if we insist their penitence be bleak.
Many thanks to John-Michael, a wonderful poet & teacher. This essay was inspired by a beautiful book he’s working on.